Resurrecting Hamsun
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Resurrecting Hamsun

There has been a recent revival of interest in the works of Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel laureate. Roshen Dalal explores the reasons for the revival.

books Updated: Dec 26, 2003 12:13 IST

There has been a recent revival of interest in the works of Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. This is reflected in a new biography of Hamsun, the first part of which was published in Norway in September 2003. This 500-page volume, Svermeren, is written by Ingar Sletten Kolloen, and the second part is expected next year.

Knut Hamsun, who died in 1952 at the age of 92, was a brilliant and prolific writer. His commitment to perfection in his writing is reflected in his own words: "Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from the soul by its very rightness."

Though he began writing at a young age, and had some works published, his first major success was with his novel Sult (Hunger), published in 1890. Several other successes followed, including Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), Victoria (1898), Children of the Age (1913), Segelfoss Town (1915), and Growth of the Soil (1917), which won him the Nobel Prize.

In this book he describes the idyllic life of a tiller of the soil, and gives the world a message of the need to return to a harmonious way of life, in tune with nature. Further success followed in the 30s with his great trilogy, Wanderers, August, and The Road Leads On, describing the free life of a wandering tramp, and analysing the philosophy of freedom. The sense of alienation he displays, both in Hunger, and in this trilogy, reminds one of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Knulp. Hamsun was favourably compared with both Hesse and Thomas Mann, and considered among the greatest writers of all time.

Why then is he so little known today? Hamsun fell out of favour with the Norwegian government, and the 'liberal' public, for his political views. During the Second World War, he inclined towards the Norwegian Nazi Party - he never joined it, but wrote favourably of it, and of Hitler. After the war, he was persecuted by his government, incarcerated in a mental asylum, and forced to pay an enormous sum to them, which ruined him financially. His wife had to spend three years in prison. Yet he wrote one more wonderful work in 1949, On Overgrown Paths, an account of his experiences, which has detachment, pathos, philosophy, and resignation.

Hamsun had also written several other works, including poems, essays, and plays. Not all of them are available in English, and even what is translated is difficult to find. In Wanderers, he wrote "That's how I see it: there are some who pick themselves up after a fall and continue on their way through life with their blue and yellow bruises. And there are others who never rise again". Despite the disasters in the last years of his life, Hamsun was a survivor, and despite his political views (which are not reflected in his fiction), his writings deserve to survive and to be known. One hopes the publication of a major biography in Norway, marks the beginning of more translations and a better availability of his work.

First Published: Dec 26, 2003 11:58 IST